Google’s Gone (not provided) – What It Means for SEO

Back in October of 2011, Google decided to change the way they pass along keyword data. When a Google Search user was logged into a Google product (Gmail, Google+, or any other Google account), their search terms were hidden, or otherwise, encrypted from being passed along to any analytics program through what is called SSL protection.  This resulted in what is known as “(not provided)” keywords that many search marketers have become all-too-familiar with over the past two years.

Figure 1: http://www.notprovidedcount.com/ has been tracking 60 sites percentages of (not provided) data since October 2011

Initially, (not provided) keywords represented a small percentage.  As this began to plateau, it was commonplace to see about 15-20% of all keywords labeled as (not provided).  Even as recently as April 2013, few people saw numbers much above 20%, but then things started to creep upwards… June 30%… August 40%… September 60%… and the numbers will go up until they can’t anymore.  Judging by search share numbers, we would estimate the climb to stop near 75%, which is approximately the ceiling of Google Search share of market.  Many marketers are already seeing this.

What does that mean for my Brand?

We need to assume that we will no longer have access to data such as visits, conversions and bounce rates for individual keywords.  For example, we will no longer be able to report that “The keyword ‘widget’ drove 250 organic visits, resulting in 10 sales during the month of October”.  (We will still be able to retrieve performance data for individual keywords on Bing and Yahoo!.)

How much this matters is really a function of how much your success really depends on that level of granular control. If you’re an e-commerce site that’s tweaking things every day based on organic keywords, and making decisions that impact tomorrow’s content creation, then that’s one thing, but for most sites – including our clients – we’re acting on directional trends, across clusters and weeks. It’s easy to feel you “need” this level of detail, when it’s not usually as meaningful as it seems it should be. PPC is really where this degree of granularity makes a big difference, and that’s not going away.

Why is Google doing this?

Every search pundit has their own theory why this is going on.  Some will claim that Google is really evil and they want to make us invest more in AdWords.  Some will say Google is being more protective of data due to recent NSA developments.  Many will scream that Google is against small businesses.  What does Google say?

Google’s official statement to Danny Sullivan, via Search Engine Land on September 23, 2013:

We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….

The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users

How can we interpret Google’s remarks?

Our opinion is that this is nothing more than Google’s desire to provide organically sourced content as true to form as possible.  No gamey tactics, targeting keywords.  Real content, aimed at search users.  In many ways, for Organic Search, this change puts the emphasis back on Content.  It’s long been held that Content is King (yes, I went there).  Well, the king has not been unseated.  Google is protecting its throne to those who, by use of intuition (data) and magic (conversion tables) sought to puppet it from behind the scenes.  Google still has a place for wizards, but it is not Oz.  It’s real, and it’s tucking the keywords back behind the curtain.  Google truly wants its Organic results to be just that.

What steps should we be taking now?

Fortunately, there are several important steps any brand can take to patch the hole that (not provided) is leaving in your data.

Other avenues for detailed keyword insights

True, our most-used source of for data on organic keywords is drying up, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other routes to the same insights, including:

  • Google WebMaster Tools
    Make sure you have your WebMaster Tools verified. In the long run, Google’s Webmaster Tools (WMT) is apparently being positioned as Google’s official tool for insights on individual organic keywords. Keywords are not encrypted on WMT, but at once, you can’t track keywords to key actions, such as conversions and other site actions. Google has announced that WMT will be upgraded to provide 12 months of historical data. I recommend archiving each month starting as far back as you can go. If you don’t yet have your site set up on WebMaster Tools, do it now!
  • Bing & Yahoo! Keyword DataThe metrics you get from these providers can’t simply replace Google’s keyword data, but they can often still provide useful insights.
  • AdWords (and other Pay-Per-Click) Metrics
    If you’re already investing in paid search through AdWords, then you’ll still have access to all the same keyword data, and more. This is still a great resource, and you’re paying for it. You better be learning something from it.

Focus on outcomes

Overall, though, your best approach is to look at keyword metrics as a means to an end, and focus on other metrics that really matter most, such as:

  • Landing Page Traffic: Pay close(r) attention to the volume and behaviors of visitors to your landing pages. Look at that information at least month/month, or more frequently if you are wont to update content frequently.
  • Keyword Rankings: Monitor a meaningful sample of keywords, across categories – Branded vs. unbranded terms, as well as “head”, “mid-tail” and “long-tail” terms.
  • Keyword Volumes: Continue to research keyword volumes using Keyword Planner (which replaced Keyword Tool back on August 28, 2013). This tool provides directional information on the most searched keywords. You can look here for content planning and optimization insights.
  • Seasonality and Emerging Trends: Google Trends and Google Insights for Search are two powerful tools that can help you evaluate seasonality and emerging trends in how your audiences search. Know where interest lies – both in keyword categories as well as geographically.

Manage the bigger picture

Finally, any marketer is best-served by having a coherent overall approach. Keyword metrics are really one small piece of a much larger puzzle, and the approaches that will really drive long-term success focus on topics such as:

  • Craft, or continue, a broader marketing strategy: Make sure you place the customer at the center of your efforts. Consider everything and make the experience truly rewarding – and you will be rewarded.
  • Be emphatic about quality content: Think about the universe that surrounds a particular target. Address the semantic relationships. When you think “summer”, don’t dismiss the months when it happens. Think about what sentiments make up the whole of the theme. Be original for your customers. After all, advertising is the price you pay for being unoriginal.
  • Maximize your analytics dashboards: Whether you have high-end or free analytics systems, it’s important to create custom segments and dashboards that will allow you to crunch and visualize data quickly

So, take a look at your brand.  Harvest inspiration from where you can find it.  Know your strengths.  Work on your weaknesses.  Be smart.  Be organized.  Be strategic.  And, all the while, tell your customers exactly what you intend to do.  It’s up to you to continue doing better.  And when you need some assistance, we’re here to provide a plan.

Vince Lombardi’s immortal words should remain true, “The object is to win fairly, by the rules – but to win.”  Google has not changed the rules.  They’ve merely insisted that we continue to play by them.